"My Perfectionist Personality Led To Extreme Anxiety & An Eating Disorder"
headspace Day takes place on 9 October to raise awareness of youth mental health.
I was a happy kid. I was one of those kids who was always singing, dancing, wearing ridiculous outfits and laughing until my stomach hurt at least once a day. My mum called me ‘her little ray of sunshine’, saying that I could light up any room with my smile.
I was also an anxious kid. Behind all those happy, joyful times, I would suffer bouts of extreme anxiety; particularly anything school-related. Each year when the new school year rolled around I would get sick to my stomach, worriedly pacing around the kitchen with Mum trying to calm me. My mind would race over every possible worst-case-scenario that could ever happen. I remember crying on my first day of year-one because I hadn’t brought in a pair of scissors we needed in our pencil cases! This futile anxiety, coupled with a personality of perfectionism and high expectations I placed on myself, inevitably led to dulling my sunshine glow I had been known for.
My perfectionist personality ramped up even more during high school and I had to be the best. I had to get the best grades and reach my ridiculously high standards because it felt like everyone else expected that of me. In Year 7, I decided to become vegetarian and did so in quite possibly, one of the unhealthiest of ways. My diet consisted of pasta, baked beans and cheese and my health plummeted as a result. The stress, malnourishment and perfectionism snowballed into insomnia, panic attacks, stress-induced weight-loss and extreme fatigue. I would come home from school and simply collapse onto the couch, unable to go up the stairs to my bedroom. My bones starting sticking out, my eyes darkened with fatigue and my mind grew more and more lonely.
The tipping point for Mum (who was my rock in all of this) was finding me curled up in a ball in the dark, tears running down my face as the darkness had become impenetrable and I didn’t know what to do. It was time to see a doctor, a nutritionist and a psychologist.
The doctor said I should run to exhaust myself to sleep. The nutritionist said I needed to eat more whole foods – less processed food and better food in general. The psychologist let me talk about what was going on in my head and use wads of tissues for the tears. So I began to run and fell in love with it. I ate better and got a taste for veggies, grains and eating a lot in general and finding my healthy weight. My mind started to heal as I realised the things that worried me shouldn’t have such an impact on my life.
Things started looking up, I began to get involved in more activities at school, my confidence grew, my aspirations grew more and I began to enjoy school, friends and life once again. I developed a huge passion for healthy eating, starting a food blog at the beginning of senior school and then later on a love of fitness. But of course, the perfectionist in me crept back into my life and the obsession began. Senior school was the time when I developed Orthorexia – a disorder of the mind where I would endeavour to be perfect in my eating and exercise habits. If anything came in the way of that, I would get extremely anxious and frustrated.
Fortunately, there was hope. My school year level was offered the opportunity to go to Tanzania and help out at a local school and visit the nearby villages. This experience changed my life. How could so many people who had so little, be the happiest people I’d ever met in my life? Back home we have everything and yet the highest rates of depression and anxiety in the world. It took a 14-hour plane trip and 8-hour bus ride to figure that out.
I returned with a new outlook on life. The world is so much bigger than my little bubble and there are much more important worries that need addressing than whether or not I got a good grade on a paper. The world is filled with so many opportunities and I shouldn’t give any of them up.
That was year 11, possibly the best year of my life. I went to Africa, made new friends, learnt life-changing lessons; then came back to Australia, smashed out my exams, became cross country champion and at the end of the year was told I would be Head Girl for my final year at school. I wanted to freeze time right then and there. Year 12 was a year to remember. I wouldn’t change a thing about it, but I would like to share that I didn’t breeze through it. Mental conditions have a habit of coming back and it took me this long to realise that they can come back in different forms, whether it be depression, Orthorexia – or during year 12 – obsessive compulsive disorder.
Exams created so many ‘tendencies’ in me that I had to complete in order to have a successful year and if I couldn’t switch off a light a certain number of times, or do a little skip every third step or so, something terrible would happen. It grew worse until my mum suggested the psychologist again. I couldn’t go back though. That was my past, I was stronger than that and I thought had beaten it. Instead, I made it a priority to go directly against what my mind was telling me to do. If I had to jump again, I purposefully wouldn’t, if I had to check the time for the 15th time, I wouldn’t.
Now this is most definitely not the end of my story but where I’m at now –18 years old, studying a nutrition degree at university with the desire to go on to study dietetics and work in a hospital with young adults suffering eating disorders. I want to help people in my career and from my experience there’s only so many times you can hear; just sleep, or just be happy before I needed someone who truly understood what I was going through and that’s something I think I can offer the world now.
I hope my story shows that yes, mental disorders are tricky and complex things that can possibly return in different forms, but every single time you beat it, you are so much stronger and one day nothing will be able to shut out your own sunshine. I know I will always have a competitive, perfectionist attitude toward life and I do push myself to my limits but it’s this realisation and acceptance that is what helps me through these challenges now. Take it from me, a big ray of happily imperfect sunshine.
- Stephanie Innes, 18
Do you need urgent help?
If you have hurt yourself or need immediate help, call emergency services: 000.
If you are feeling overwhelmed and in need of support, you can contact these 24/7 crisis support services:
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Lifeline: 13 11 14